.

The WikiLeaks affair has generated a great deal of commentary but very little of it has examined its effects upon one interested readership: historians. To us it has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, the release of so much, so soon, ought to have given rise to euphoria among those who ordinarily must wait several decades for the release of just a fraction of what has already been promised on the Internet.

On the other hand, historians, especially diplomatic historians, tend toward qualified pessimism. One of them, Paul W. Schroeder, concluded last week in the New York Times that the leaks were “like the work of irresponsible amateurs using dynamite to expand a tunnel that also contains, say, a city’s electrical lines. The leaks will probably not cause war or even a serious crisis, but they will badly damage America’s diplomatic machinery, processes and reputation.” They remind us, as Woodrow Wilson might have said, that “the goal of negotiations should be to quietly reach an agreement, followed by ratification or rejection by elected legislators. In other words, open covenants of peace, secretly arrived at.”

What is new about these leaks? Who is really behind their release? How will they affect the conduct of diplomacy?

All are valid historical questions. Speculation over them is rife. The received opinion so far is that the leaks are an “unprecedented” act of vandalism against American power and institutions but whose detrimental effects will probably be less severe than expected. America is still powerful, at least for a little while longer; its diplomats will adapt, as they always have done, to make use of opportunities after setbacks. Indeed, a few commentators have accentuated the positive, as diplomats like to say. At the very least, the leaked cables demonstrate impressive skills of reportage, which bolster the literary reputations of a number of American Foreign Service officers.

This is small comfort to them and to others whose classified opinions have been broadcast for the world to see. The moment may not be, as Pat Buchanan said, the “Pearl Harbor of American diplomacy” but it is a good deal worse than awkward for people whose professional (and often personal) lives revolve around the anonymity of public service.

That is why even the most talented diplomatic reporters have authored some of the most mediocre memoirs. Audience is everything. In communicating with the general public and, at times, with foreign counterparts, wise diplomats wrap their thoughts in a cloak of bland and pious generalities. The very opposite is the case when writing for colleagues and superiors. Diplomats who like to see their names in the newspaper are generally looked down upon, whereas being known for the quality of one’s cables matters a great deal. The conflation of the two in this instance would amount to nothing less than a perversion of their individual and social value, not to mention the obvious stains upon their reputations with foreign colleagues.

It is certainly possible that the WikiLeaks incidents will compel many otherwise prolix diplomats to curb their reporting, and the U.S. government to reassemble many bureaucratic stovepipes. It also will most likely mean that the declassification of official documents—the bread and butter of historians—will be even tougher and will take even longer, or that fewer written records may be kept to begin with. Historians may come out of this the biggest losers of all.

It is too early to know, of course. What do know is that political theft and leakage are not new. The scale of the WikiLeaks is the largest in recent memory, but the act is a familiar one. Anyone who writes an official memorandum has this in the back of the mind, while historians know that the significance of any document is inseparable—indeed, almost always wholly derivative of—the context in which it was written.

In previous cases of mass leakage—such as the Bolsheviks’ exposure of the secret World War I treaties and the Pentagon Papers—the agenda of the leakers figured prominently in the foreground. The purveyors of WikiLeaks have stated theirs to be the cause of truth and transparency. That is diplomatic, to put it mildly. The full truth shall be known only when the identities of the leakers and the custody chain of the leaks are uncovered for all to see. That day, alas, may never come.

Do the motives of the leakers really matter? Probably yes, especially if they adhere to the tradition of manipulating information for particular ends. This was true even in cases where the leaks were unintentional. Recall the famous instances of the Zimmermann telegram and Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech: publicizing the former helped to compel American entry into the First World War; the second, to embarrass the Soviets and to blur their focus at the height of the Cold War. They are not unlike the other mainstay of international life: the forgery. As with the infamous Zinoviev letter and, more recently, the African yellowcake document, there was a direct relationship between the purveyance of the information and a sought after outcome.

If, however, the aim is to so disrupt the normal ways of doing business that the business itself—in this case, the carrying out of foreign policy—becomes permanently damaged whereupon international relations become nearly ungovernable, then we have a different problem. Disorder on this scale has historically been the result of widespread political upheaval rather than simple sabotage, unless the latter becomes serious enough to bring about the former. Diplomatic history, in particular, suggests that major transformations in the way nations do business usually happen with the encouragement of governments—the introduction of the telegraph, for example, which had important implications for diplomacy—and not in spite of them.

Particular and general aims may coincide, of course. They often do. Even anarchists have aspirations. First among them in this case may be the emasculation of America, the shrinkage of its power. But as the record of the last Bush administration shows, the loss of existential and real global power tends to accompany its most exhibitionistic moments. The opposite may also be true. Making it so in the age of the internet is the next big frontier for American diplomacy. The vandals of WikiLeaks, meanwhile, may have to settle for a different result: a lingering role for the United States as the world’s foil of first, and last, resort.

The author is a diplomatic historian and author of The Atlantic Century (Da Capo)

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Leaks, Forgeries and Scandals: Plus ça change…

Global Business or International Corporate as Art
December 7, 2010

The WikiLeaks affair has generated a great deal of commentary but very little of it has examined its effects upon one interested readership: historians. To us it has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, the release of so much, so soon, ought to have given rise to euphoria among those who ordinarily must wait several decades for the release of just a fraction of what has already been promised on the Internet.

On the other hand, historians, especially diplomatic historians, tend toward qualified pessimism. One of them, Paul W. Schroeder, concluded last week in the New York Times that the leaks were “like the work of irresponsible amateurs using dynamite to expand a tunnel that also contains, say, a city’s electrical lines. The leaks will probably not cause war or even a serious crisis, but they will badly damage America’s diplomatic machinery, processes and reputation.” They remind us, as Woodrow Wilson might have said, that “the goal of negotiations should be to quietly reach an agreement, followed by ratification or rejection by elected legislators. In other words, open covenants of peace, secretly arrived at.”

What is new about these leaks? Who is really behind their release? How will they affect the conduct of diplomacy?

All are valid historical questions. Speculation over them is rife. The received opinion so far is that the leaks are an “unprecedented” act of vandalism against American power and institutions but whose detrimental effects will probably be less severe than expected. America is still powerful, at least for a little while longer; its diplomats will adapt, as they always have done, to make use of opportunities after setbacks. Indeed, a few commentators have accentuated the positive, as diplomats like to say. At the very least, the leaked cables demonstrate impressive skills of reportage, which bolster the literary reputations of a number of American Foreign Service officers.

This is small comfort to them and to others whose classified opinions have been broadcast for the world to see. The moment may not be, as Pat Buchanan said, the “Pearl Harbor of American diplomacy” but it is a good deal worse than awkward for people whose professional (and often personal) lives revolve around the anonymity of public service.

That is why even the most talented diplomatic reporters have authored some of the most mediocre memoirs. Audience is everything. In communicating with the general public and, at times, with foreign counterparts, wise diplomats wrap their thoughts in a cloak of bland and pious generalities. The very opposite is the case when writing for colleagues and superiors. Diplomats who like to see their names in the newspaper are generally looked down upon, whereas being known for the quality of one’s cables matters a great deal. The conflation of the two in this instance would amount to nothing less than a perversion of their individual and social value, not to mention the obvious stains upon their reputations with foreign colleagues.

It is certainly possible that the WikiLeaks incidents will compel many otherwise prolix diplomats to curb their reporting, and the U.S. government to reassemble many bureaucratic stovepipes. It also will most likely mean that the declassification of official documents—the bread and butter of historians—will be even tougher and will take even longer, or that fewer written records may be kept to begin with. Historians may come out of this the biggest losers of all.

It is too early to know, of course. What do know is that political theft and leakage are not new. The scale of the WikiLeaks is the largest in recent memory, but the act is a familiar one. Anyone who writes an official memorandum has this in the back of the mind, while historians know that the significance of any document is inseparable—indeed, almost always wholly derivative of—the context in which it was written.

In previous cases of mass leakage—such as the Bolsheviks’ exposure of the secret World War I treaties and the Pentagon Papers—the agenda of the leakers figured prominently in the foreground. The purveyors of WikiLeaks have stated theirs to be the cause of truth and transparency. That is diplomatic, to put it mildly. The full truth shall be known only when the identities of the leakers and the custody chain of the leaks are uncovered for all to see. That day, alas, may never come.

Do the motives of the leakers really matter? Probably yes, especially if they adhere to the tradition of manipulating information for particular ends. This was true even in cases where the leaks were unintentional. Recall the famous instances of the Zimmermann telegram and Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech: publicizing the former helped to compel American entry into the First World War; the second, to embarrass the Soviets and to blur their focus at the height of the Cold War. They are not unlike the other mainstay of international life: the forgery. As with the infamous Zinoviev letter and, more recently, the African yellowcake document, there was a direct relationship between the purveyance of the information and a sought after outcome.

If, however, the aim is to so disrupt the normal ways of doing business that the business itself—in this case, the carrying out of foreign policy—becomes permanently damaged whereupon international relations become nearly ungovernable, then we have a different problem. Disorder on this scale has historically been the result of widespread political upheaval rather than simple sabotage, unless the latter becomes serious enough to bring about the former. Diplomatic history, in particular, suggests that major transformations in the way nations do business usually happen with the encouragement of governments—the introduction of the telegraph, for example, which had important implications for diplomacy—and not in spite of them.

Particular and general aims may coincide, of course. They often do. Even anarchists have aspirations. First among them in this case may be the emasculation of America, the shrinkage of its power. But as the record of the last Bush administration shows, the loss of existential and real global power tends to accompany its most exhibitionistic moments. The opposite may also be true. Making it so in the age of the internet is the next big frontier for American diplomacy. The vandals of WikiLeaks, meanwhile, may have to settle for a different result: a lingering role for the United States as the world’s foil of first, and last, resort.

The author is a diplomatic historian and author of The Atlantic Century (Da Capo)

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.